Extensive compressor reviews and FAQ

FMR RNLA: I reviewed the RNLA a few years ago, maybe around 2008, and it was a negative review. I said the RNLA distorts too easily with bass, even at slow release times, and has a persistent crackling noise during the note decay. Since then I've gotten many emails and seen many forum posts on the subject, with roughly equal numbers of them saying they do or don't hear the problems I described. I don't have any issue with opposing views because we all hear things a little differently, especially because we do not use the same gear as each other, in the same environments. What does bother me though is the people that whine about my review being "unfair", insisting that FMR only makes good gear so I'm wrong to criticize it. One emailer even insisted my review was unfair because FMR's owner is a good person. Por favor, give me a freakin break. The fact is I go to great lengths to test the widest possible range of uses of each compressor, in order to be as fair and accurate as I can. I use many different instruments, preamps, and signal chains, at all different levels, impedances, and frequency ranges. I often buy the same models twice, even three times, over a period of months or years in order to rule out flukes and defects. If you hear a given compressor differently from how I describe it, that's fine, but ask yourself whether you've actually tested the device in so many ways.
 
Here it is 2012 and I've bought another RNLA. It doesn't make the noises as badly as the previous one did, possibly because I'm using different gear to test it now; but there is still some static-like sound. FMR's designer says "I believe that the RNLA distorts in a tasteful, useful and controllable way", but I think he meant distortion in a technical sense that includes subtle tone coloration, not the sort of crackly sound that I'm hearing. I recorded an audio clip so you could hear what I'm talking about, and posted it here a while ago, but the file is missing right now. I will re-post it the instant I can find a backup copy.
 
Good news though, I found a sweet spot with little to none of the distortion or crackling! It was when feeding the RNLA a somewhat low line level signal, about 0 dBu, from an effects loop. Giving it a professional +4 dBu line level signal resulted in terrible distortion. Plugging a guitar or bass straight in to the RNLA resulted in a very poor signal-to-noise ratio, as well as loading (tone loss) problems with a passive instrument. But using the much lower line level from the loop got a good range of response, no loading, good signal-to-noise, and hardly any static buzzing. So perhaps other people that got better results than me from the RNLA happened to be feeding it this particular range of input signal. Many musicians will want to put a small rackable comp like this in their amp's effects loop anyway, just as a normal way of setting up their rig, so this is not an unreasonable limitation on getting decent results.
 
Having gotten all of that mess out of the way, here are the basic facts. It is a rackable module, 1/3 of a rack width. It can be run in mono or stereo, but with only one set of controls it won't work as two independent channels. The in/output jacks are unbalanced 1/4", but they are also designed to take a single TRS cable for use with mixers and preamps that have a TRS insert point (an effects loop with just one jack for both send and return). Using TRS cables won't make the connection balanced. It also has a sidechain jack for using an external processor or control signal to modify the compression response. The threshold and ratio knobs cover a very wide range of response, potentially allowing for everything from the subtlest touch of smoothing to the heaviest smashing and squashing. There's no loss of highs or lows, and there is hardly any background hiss noise.
 
Tone is a big question. FMR goes on at length about how this design adds vintage coloration to the tone, yet at the same time has high fidelity; what it actually boils down to is that a person who normally seeks the purest of transparency would think the RNLA colors the signal; but a person with less clinical standards, seeking extra fat tone, will probably think it is too transparent. The "thick, gooey" quality they advertise is very subtle in reality. It is warmer sounding than the RNC anyway.
 
The construction quality is decent, clean-looking and probably reliable but not "bombproof" rugged. It runs on 9V AC from an external wall-wart supply. It has a bypass button, tucked in a tight little space on the front panel; it's not "true bypass" but it's clean and effective for A/B'ing your signal. FMR has suggested a mod for improved bass response in this unit, which involves replacing two capacitors. But I have not done this mod, as the components in question are SMD (miniature) and I don't have the tools for SMD work. And frankly I think it's bogus that such a mod would even be necessary. In sum, just like with the RNC, I'm sure it is possible to get good results from this device IF the signal you want to process is not too bass-heavy, and IF the rest of your signal chain luckily happens to be compatible.
 
Price in USD: new $225, used $130-$180
 
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